Posts Tagged ‘ Neal Stephenson ’

Neal Stephenson – REAMDE (Book Review)

REAMDE cover

Neal Stephenson - REAMDE

Though Neal Stephenson has become known for dense, 1000-page novels in recent years, he has a knack for page-turning adventure as well. REAMDE returns to that side of his writing, with an action-packed story involving Russian mobsters, spies, and a computer virus. REAMDE doesn’t completely distance itself from Stephenson’s latest works, though: It’s still 1000 pages long, and sometimes the thriller plot gets bogged down by the sheer scope of the story.

The novel is set in a world just like ours, except that a new game named T’Rain has eclipsed World of Warcraft as the dominant MMORPG. Shortly after Richard Forthrast, the game’s creator, gets his niece Zula a job with the company, a virus named “REAMDE” appears. It requires victims to transfer money in T’Rain in order to save their data. Things quickly escalate, and before long Zula is a hostage to a Russian crime lord who wants her to track down the creator of the virus. The story barrels through several unexpected changes and ends up following quite a few characters spread across different countries.

In many ways, REAMDE is structured like an especially large “airplane read” thriller. One of the things that makes it so large, though, is Stephenson’s love for detail. The fight scenes involve considerations of gun ballistics, the countries people end up in are determined by the “great circle routes” available to the airplane pilots, and of course the world of T’Rain is structured around a deep understanding of the mechanics and economics of today’s computer games. Whether these additions sound appealing or boring to you will determine whether you should read this book. They are definitely interesting at times, and even when they get a little dry, they make the story believable. Stephenson’s bid for realism may be a bit misdirected, though, given that much of the plot still depends on coincidences and characters making the right decisions to stay relevant to the book. Still, it’s an exciting story, and Stephenson has finally learned to make his musings quick and relevant to the story instead of the long lectures they used to be.

The other element that defines Stephenson’s stories is his love of geek culture. This has expanded in the past to encompass his fascination with history, economics, and philosophy. Now, REAMDE simply opens the doors to celebrate obsessives of all varieties. The computer geeks are well-represented, but the book includes everyone from Medieval re-enactors to Constitutionalist gun-lovers to cat skiiers (an elitist version of the sport that, of course, Richard’s mountain resort caters to). In Stephenson’s world, everyone worthwhile has a some special driving interest. The way T’Rain is explained in the game, It was successful because Richard chose a developer with a compulsive need to base the game’s geography on real sceince and a story-writer who believes that a consistent fantasy language is the key to the new world.

(It’s actually interesting to consider Richard as a stand-in for Stephenson himself. The book frequently mentions that Richard doesn’t understand the people around him, but his success comes from respecting their eccentricities and recognizing their skills. Is that how Stephenson sees himself relating to the fans he writes for?)

REAMDE is often good, but inconsistently so. The first few hundred pages are great. But just when the reader settles in for a crazy ride that keeps jumping from threat to threat, it turns out that the latest round of bad guys are the real villains for the entire book. I find them to be the least interesting of the conflicts that were introduced in the first third, but pretty soon, it’s focused on them with even the side plots fading away. These other plots and characters do return for the last third, though, and things get interesting again. But in the final hundred pages, they all fall apart.

Stephenson has never been good at endings, but I believe REAMDE has his worst ever. After a laborious set-up to bring all the characters back together (involving unlikely guesses among several), the scene is set for a long, long, long gun battle in the mountains. The detailed logistics don’t really matter, but people keep separating, joining up, flanking each other, and getting in shoot-outs. Most scenes in the end section could have been removed without me even noticing, and in fact I’ve already forgotten (one day later) how the conclusion played out. It felt like Stephenson just reached a point where he said “Ok, time for the bullets to stop missing the bad guy.”

Also frustrating is how small a role the titular “REAMDE” plays in the plot. The book’s title (and press) promise a mystery – what is its purpose, and what does the name even mean? (“Read me?” “Reamed?” “Redeem?”) But the answers are mundane, and resolved quickly. Stephenson actually seems to be on the side of the virus writers, even after demonstrating in the beginning that they harmed a lot of people. Meanwhile, the subplots related to T’Rain are never resolved, and the entire game could have been removed from the book with only minor adjustments to the plot. It’s obvious that Stephenson put a lot of effort into this system, but it just doesn’t mesh with the story about abduction and spies he ended up writing.

Despite its 1000-page length, REAMDE is usually breezy and exciting. For many lapsed fans, this may be the novel that rekindles their interest in Stephenson. For me, though, the boring middle and its inability to juggle all the plot threads set in motion tempered much of the thrill.

Grade: C+

Neal Stephenson – Anathem (Book Review)

Anathem cover

Neal Stephenson - Anathem

I gave up on Neal Stephenson sometime during his Baroque Cycle. That ponderous history tome took pages to explain some concepts, but other times assumed the audience was already familiar with the same things as Stephenson. After several years away, though, I’m very glad that I finally tried his novel Anathem. I can see how many readers would have issues with it similar to my problems with the Baroque Cycle, but I can also say that for the right people, this is a masterpiece.

Set in a world where scholarly types remain cloistered in systems that are half-convent and half-university, this features a complex and initially confusing culture. The book is filled with slightly awkward people who like nothing more than to learn and debate each other. (They even have a formal system of “Dialog” reminiscent of Socrates.) Much of the pleasure of the book, especially at the beginning, comes from geeky characters simply talking and going about their lives. This system is low-tech, but it’s still recognizably the place where our world’s computer programmers and philosophers would end up.

The religious and academic development of this world is very different from ours, but some ideas are familiar, with direct parallels for everything from the Holocaust to Occam’s Razor. Other concepts, such as Plato’s Theory of Forms, are twisted into something recognizable but different. There is a lot to learn, but the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar makes it go smoothly. In such a setting, the hints found in the wordplay (“anathem”, for example, being a ritual that is both “anthem” and “anathema”) are helpful rather than cloying.

The book doesn’t intentionally hold things back; Despite some of the complaints I’ve heard, it starts describing things right away, and sets up situations (such as the once-per-decade festival in which the sheltered characters can mix with civilians) that are designed to explain the system to outsiders. There is a lot to learn, though, and the bulky 900 pages is just barely enough for the novel to cover all of its material. If that scares you away, then this is not for you. However, if you enjoy genre fiction, at least part of that is probably the joy of understanding new worlds. Anathem is just an especially heady version of that experience. I think a large part of the reason that this worked for me where the Baroque Cycle failed is that Stephenson couldn’t make assumptions about which parts of this world I already knew. He (eventually) had to explain everything the reader was supposed to appreciate.

Stephenson’s flaws are still evident, but he has found a perfect vehicle for them. If the characters are sometimes simplistic, it helps that they are various types of nerds safe in a culture devoted to abstract learning. The multi-page lessons for the reader are easier to swallow in dialog format. And if obscure topics that come up in passing always become vital later on, at least the epic length of the story gives them a chance to develop naturally. Happily, at least one of Stephenson’s weak points has been addressed, as this is his first novel to feature a satisfying ending.

I can’t really say much about the plot. In my mind, avoiding spoilers means that I shouldn’t talk about the things that come up after the reader has put effort into the book, and in this case, that covers at least 80% of the story. Suffice to say that Anathem begins with a simple world seen through the eyes of youth, but quickly grows to encompass mysteries and political intrigue. It gets exciting, too: despite Stephenson’s reputation for long, dense books, he has a gift for page-turning adventure. The scope is way beyond what might be expected from the closed society of the early chapters, and by the end, the novel has developed themes even bolder than the fascinating culture it started with. The changes aren’t always welcome at the time, as I felt that I could have stayed immersed in the narrator’s initial boyhood innocence forever. But that, too, worked to the novel’s advantage, because I felt the same nostalgia he did as the situation became progressively stranger. Also, the alternate world isn’t just a clever gimmick. By the end of the story, its quirks have been justified, and it becomes clear that the differences from our reality were all in service to the story and Stephenson’s ideas.

The worst thing I can say about a novel is that only some people will consider it a work of genius. Rich and complex, taking full advantage of its 900-page length to make very foreign systems come alive, Stephenson has mixed his love of geek culture and appreciation for history into his first alternate world. It’s the sort that most writers would spend a lifetime trying to create.

Grade: A-